When Patrick Fugit woke up Sunday morning and learned via Facebook that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died in New York, he had a surprising first thought. It wasn’t a flashback to Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical coming-of-age movie that starred Fugit as a teenage rock journalist and Hoffman as iconic critic Lester Bangs. “I started immediately thinking about Punch-Drunk Love, which is one of my favorite films that he’s in,” says Fugit, who’s currently filming Gone Girl for David Fincher. “Have you seen the Mattress Man commercial that he’s in? It’s just a deleted scene from the Punch-Drunk Love special edition where he basically jumps onto these mattresses from atop a semi truck and he misses them and falls on the ground. It looks like Philip really wrecks himself. It totally looks real, and it’s genius and hilarious. I don’t know why, but that was the first thing I thought of.”
But after that initial memory, Fugit couldn’t help but reflect on the scenes he shared with Hoffman in Almost Famous. The young actor was only 16 years old at the time and had no clue who Hoffman was when the esteemed actor arrived on the set for three days of filming. Below, as told to EW, Fugit looks back on those pivotal scenes and how they made a lasting impact on him as an actor.
Those scenes are so good at communicating the philosophy of the film. There’s a certain vulnerability that the two characters share, which I love. Back then, I was fresh out of this theater school in Salt Lake City and done bit parts on little shows, so I had this little bag of tricks to get through scenes and hit beats. But nobody really taught me how to film act. So we had a lot of rehearsal time but I never had a chance to rehearse with Phil; there was some scheduling conflict. Cameron Crowe was like, “He’s great but I just want to warn you he’s probably going to be in character the whole time.”
And then he got there, and it was like he said. He wasn’t Lester Bangs all day long, but he was very intense. I had never seen somebody that complex and that thorough with a character or acting or themselves really. He brought a certain weight, as a person, as a character, and as a presence.
There was a lot of pressure on me, so I think people were kind of tiptoeing around me: “Oh Patrick, you’re doing a great job, and all this, ha, ha, ha.” But Philip was not like that at all. He was there to do his job and it was like he wanted me to keep up with him. When he came on, he was like, “Are you ready? Are you really ready? You’re the lead of the film, and you better step to the plate on this one.”
I remember Cameron told me, “Oh, Philip has the flu,” so Phil would waddle on set, mumbly and eyes half closed, and he would sit down and close his eyes. It was almost like he was psyching himself up or something. They’d call, “Action!” and he was intense as sh–! I remember watching and thinking, “Man, from this point on, I can’t rely on my old tricks that I learned growing up.” From now on, that’s the kind of actor that I want to be and that’s the kind of actor I’m sure I need to be on this set. That’s the level of thought and processing and heart and reality that I have to put on my character.
I came from a background where I had to memorize all my lines word for word. That’s just how I thought it is in the world, but on Almost Famous, there were some actors that I was watching that would paraphrase. Cameron would have these bullet-points in the script, where it’s like you hit this line specifically the way it’s written because it means something or it’s part of the tone of the movie, but then they would go off on other little tangents. Or they’ll hit the line but they’ll sort of change it around and make it feel more natural. When people were paraphrasing lines, I was like, “Oh I didn’t know you could do that. That’s kind of awesome.” Then I watched Philip and he would say everything [as it was written]. He was like a surgeon. Exact. And he had fit everything about the character and what he needed to communicate to the audience and what he needed to communicate about Lester Bangs and also feel natural. And the way that he smoothed out those quote bumps that other actors would paraphrase around was with development. Basically, he had thought about the character, he had prepared, and he came to set ready.
That second day, we shot the walking scene, where I’m walking up the street with him, and it’s funny because Philip sort of embodied Lester Bangs, who was a pretty cynical, dark guy. He’d ask me, “How old are you?” I’d be like, “16.” And he’d go, “You little f—ing sh–. What have you done before?”
As we’re walking up the street, Cameron and he and I are talking, and it’s the scene about how William’s coming into rock and roll as rock and roll is dying. And Philip started talking about the film industry and acting and filmmaking, and the art of filmmaking and the art of acting and how it’s dying. He was comparing the beginning of my career to William’s career. He’s like, “Man, you should’ve come along 10 or 15 years ago.” He was really freaking me out. He and Cameron had a good time kind of winding me up on that.
I remember we were shooting in the diner where he’s giving me advice on everything, and they had lit the scene quite bright from the outside and the light was just behind Philip. So every time I would look at Philip, I would start squinting and my eyes would start watering, so I would kind of look down at the paper pad to pretend I was writing. They kept telling me, “Hey, you have to look at Philip when you read your lines.” I didn’t know how to say that I can’t actually physically keep my eyes on Philip [because of the light] but Philip had been watching me. He’s like, “Guys, c’mon! Can’t we move the f–king light? I mean, the kid can barely look across the table!” And he and [cinematographer] John Toll kind of got into it. John was like, “We’ll adjust it a little bit but the light’s there for a reason, buddy. We got to light the scene.” Philip said, “F–k lighting! Do you want it to look f–king good or do you want the kid to be able to act!” It was tense. I didn’t know that that’s just kind of how people who are professional talk to each other now and then. And then they’re like, “Okay, we’ll move the light,” and then we shot the scene. But it was the first time where I got in a situation where I didn’t know if I could stand up for myself. And he just stepped up and did it for me. And then he kind of looked at me and smiled and said, “Dude, if something’s bothering you, you have to speak up.” I was like, “Okay, yeah, yeah, totally.”
Most everybody had wrapped but then we had to go back and shoot that last [phone call] scene. It was my first last day of my career. I was exhausted, completely burned out, completely spent. And we sit down and we start doing that phone call, and the set gets really quiet, more quiet than normal. Everybody was sort of done. Everybody was on their last legs, after five months of shooting, two months of rehearsal. I was sitting there on the phone and Philip was sitting there on the other line, and we would just talk through the lines. We did a lot of takes, and I was so tired that I would go back to using some tricks to try to make myself cry or to make myself emotional. And then the last take, which is the take that’s in the movie, Cameron had Philip talk about how much fun I’ve been having on the film. He said something like, “You know, I don’t want you to worry even though you’re probably not going to see a lot of these people again. This has been an amazing experience, hasn’t it?” And I started losing it; I started crying. And then Philip quickly started doing the lines again, and it was all sort of there. I kept going with the mood and we did the rest of the scene, and I think we did it again, and that was it. That was a wrap.
When I turned 30 in 2012, my girlfriend at the time was like, “We’re watching Almost Famous for your birthday.” So we sat down and watched it and I hadn’t seen it in so long, so I was kind of picking myself apart. But then Philip comes on, and it was so bizarre because I knew what was going on when we shot the movie and I knew what I was doing when we shot the movie, but there was so much that I just didn’t see in the script or didn’t understand because I was young. I hadn’t had a lot of life experience, so watching it as a grown man was a way different experience. And it really struck me especially then, just how special it was that I got to do those scenes with Philip. This was a grown-ass man who knew how to act, and I was just some dumb-sh– kid that got lucky, you know? Once I figured out what a huge deal it was that I got to do scenes with him, I was so stoked and proud. And every time I’d see him in something else, I’d be like, “We really have to get together on something else. There’s got to be something coming down the line that we can work together on again.”